Annoying the Whisky Retailers

Robot SantaIt’s the holiday season in the US and people are making recommendations for whisky related gifts. As my preferred stocking stuffer has always been coal I thought I would help instead by making some suggestions to whisky retailers to make online shopping less annoying. As I shop predominantly in the US this list is largely restricted to the practices of American retailers, and if some of the names I mention are less familiar it’s because they are stores in Minnesota. And I don’t mean to pick on the few stores I name–most of these issues are widespread, but I’ve encountered them myself at these stores. It goes without saying that almost all these retailers are in fact very helpful and when you call them it’s very easy to sort things out and get personalized help. But with a proper online store that shouldn’t be necessary.

I know this is a highly unoriginal list of complaints and also a highly unoriginal genre of blog post. But it’s maddening that so many of these problems persist in 2013.

The immediate impetus for this post is a recent annoyance and so let’s lead with that in this incomplete list. Because it is, as you know, all about ME! ME! ME!

1. It is really cool when retailers link to their inventory in their online store, showing you how many bottles of any particular expression are left. It’s much cooler, however, when this online inventory actually has some positive relationship with real inventory. There are numerous stores around the country that claim to show live inventory but when you place the order it turns out they don’t actually have what you wanted. And when you talk to someone they tell you that they’re well aware of the discrepancy between online inventory and actual inventory. Gah!

(Some culprits: D&M, Hitime.)

2. A specialized subset of the above: please don’t list your distributor’s theoretical inventory as inventory in stock if it’s not actually in stock in your store/warehouse. It’s nice to know what you might be able to get; it’s nicer to know what you actually have. And if your actual store inventory is smaller than what’s available online make clear what’s not available in-store. Many local customers come to your store to look for things they’ve seen on your site.

(Some culprits: Merwin’s, Wineoland)

3. Don’t list out of stock items, and certainly don’t list them in the same view as in-stock bottles. It makes your listings look more impressive than they are, yes, but they also make purchasing at your store highly annoying.

(Culprits: Too many to list, but locally South Lyndale Liquors is particularly culpable.)

4. Actually list everything you have and put things in the correct categories so they can be found easily.

(Culprits: for the former, Astor Wine who only display 100 bottles–to find everything you have to search by region–and Surdyk’s who don’t list many of their premium bottles on their website; for the latter, every store that randomly puts some single malts among blends.)

5. Allow proper sorting of your listings already, it’s goddamned late 2013. Allow me the option of displaying all your whisky on one screen and let me sort it by name and price; allow me to filter the list by distillery and bottler and age and vintage. Of course, all this means that you should populate your database properly.

(Culprits: almost everyone in the US)

6. Please list all pertinent details of the whisky. At a minimum you should list the abv, the cask no. and type, and distillation and bottling years (where relevant and available on the label). For batch/annual releases like the Laphroaig 10 CS or Lagavulin 12, please note the batch version/release year.

(Culprits: almost everyone in the US, though the Party Source, who no longer ship, are an exception.)

7. Don’t list irrelevant information, like random tasting notes that some minion at your store has cut and pasted in from the web or some generic verbiage that comes with the software you use.

(Culprits: all the stores that publish the wonderfully informative tasting note that reads “This is not your average Scotch drink. It still has the familiar taste of your average Scotch and water but with a little extra flavor.”; cut and paste reviews of different bottles used to be a problem at the Party Source, but this seems to have gotten better.)

8. Don’t try to convince me that your prices are great by comparing them to theoretical prices that no one actually charges. And don’t tell me your prices are the best in the country when a simple glance at Wine Searcher reveals otherwise.

(Culprits: too many to mention.)

9. Don’t send me emails every day telling me about some great deal. Promoting frenzy among buyers is a very short-term sales model; it leads very quickly to exhaustion. And it comes around and bites you in the ass when long-term customers realize that many of those “Buy now! Buy now!” bottles stick around for a year or more and end up getting discounted. Also: bubble.

(Culprit: K&L most spectacularly.)

Are there things I’ve missed? Retailers who’re particularly good in some of these areas that others should learn from? Are there any stores in the US who pass all these tests?

14 thoughts on “Annoying the Whisky Retailers

  1. A very good list MAO, as i share your frustrations. Also, dont show a retail price and sale price for each bottle in your inventory, just list the retail price at the sale price. Generally, as a rule of thumb for retailers, you have a few items that you are trying to move that you put on sale. When you have a sale price for every single bottle you assume that your customers are stupid, which is generally a bad attitude for a good business.

    Based on all of your observations i dont normally buy online unless i cannot find a bottle anywhere on long island or in the city. My only online purchase has been a del maguey chichicapa after searching extensively and not being able to find it.

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  2. Point 5 is THE most frustrating for me. It always amazes me how online retailers –especially of wine and spirits, make it so hard to sort and view. It is a giant database of information they all seem to go to great lengths to cloak in poor site design. Amazing.

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  3. Not to imply that any of these things aren’t annoying, that they shouldn’t be corrected, or that what I’m about to say isn’t necessarily clear to the assembled, but many online sites still aren’t about YOU! YOU! YOU! the customer – they’re about the retailer and many of the points listed serve to prolong shopping and keep the customer looking for as long as possible, all of which benefits sales in the long run. The easier it is to determine a store’s actual inventory and prices, the less time you spend at the site or in the store, and the less chance there is that you’ll find an impulse purchase on the way while sorting through the chaff looking for the wheat. It’s the reason that every IKEA is set up like a theme-park maze – it’s designed to be easier to find everything BUT what you came in for.

    I don’t defend the practice or, again, mean to imply that I can see what others can’t, but it might take a series of direct emails to offenders to get these things corrected. Retailers are well aware of the problems but, the catch is, they’re not problems for retailers (yet) and may never be while consumers are taken in by these tactics.

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    • I don’t know, Jeff, IKEA stores are arranged that way but IKEA.com is not. On their website they make it easy for you to find things very easily by type. You don’t have to scroll through the entire furniture section or even the entire living room section or even the entire sofa section to find a listing of leather armchairs. And they display all the dimensions, weight, materials etc..

      People don’t shop online the way they do in stores, I don’t think. Most liquor stores have just grafted online stores onto their regular operations and just don’t take them seriously enough. Some get some aspects right (K&L has a killer fulfillment backend and are good with inventory) but no one seems to get enough of them right.

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      • I agree that not all online shopping is arranged that way, much less has to be, even in whisky. A lot of the UK sites seem far more straight ahead and probably, as you say, it’s because they take that aspect of the business more seriously, although some are far more specialized toward whisky. The well-read and hard-headed customer knows what they’re looking for, so bad site organization/maintenance doesn’t encourage browsing so much as it does frustration, but it might also partly be a case of the store’s read, or misread, of who the online customer is, what their expectations are, and how important this aspect of the business could be if done properly. And, despite their frustration at flaws on a site, the well-read and hard-headed customer is less likely to give up looking as well.

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  4. You can add K&L and their unwillingness to ship protective boxes/tubes in your list of complaints. I plan on opening some of the whiskies I buy from K&L in years to come, and to not have protective boxes/tubes mean that I may be exposing my whiskies to light, changes in temperature, and damage to labels and bottles.

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    • On the K&L boxes/tubes subject I assume you’ve seen this post by David Driscoll on Spirits Journal and this discussion on Sku’s Recent Eats.

      I do understand that it’s a complicated issue for some retailers (though others ship heavy boxes as a matter of course without any special requests or extra fees needed). What interests me more is the response from some whisky geeks. I know there are some people who just couldn’t care less one way or the other; others, however, seem to make it a point of principle to not want packaging altogether. As though wanting a box (where possible) is tantamount to saying that the whisky in the bottle is not the thing you’re most interested in; or that wanting a box must mean that you condone over the top packaging and paying for things other than whisky: it seems to become a geek authenticity thing.

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      • I actually don’t follow Driscoll’s journal or Sku’s blog but I guess it makes sense if the packaging looks like Loki’s stupid wooden helmet thingy, but I’m talking about just Laphroaig’s tubes or Ardbeg’s cardbox. I, like a lot of whisky drinkers, don’t open everything right away (some bottles I’m planning to open YEARS down the road), and need the box/tube to protect the whisky from the elements. The boxes would also be useful for me because I’m planning to move in a year’s time. I have over 200 bottles, and more than half of them are unopened. Imagine trying to move over 200 bottles of whiskies without its protective cases. Are you willing to risk damage, wintry cold, hot summers, direct sunlight to your Broras, your Port Ellens, your Karuizawas, because you are too cool for school? I’m not a collector and I don’t ever plan to sell any of my whiskies. The only reason I need the protective cases is because I want to protect my whiskies. Is that too much to ask? The protective cases ARE part of my purchase. I paid for them; I want them included in the parcel. End of story.

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        • It is ludicrous we feel compelled to plea our case. We pay for the liquid, bottle, label, box or tube and presentational miscellanea, so we rightfully expect to find all that in the box. The what & and why is entirely our business. If something cannot be delivered, we need to be informed upfront. The K&L spirits department is with us on this point, but hasn’t been able to convince higher management (snotty wine folk, no doubt) to stock shipping boxes appropriate for spirits.

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    • Well, the fact that I can’t have stuff shipped to MN anymore doesn’t mean I don’t still shop at stores in states I visit a lot (having bottles held at stores or shipped to friends till I get there) or that being a whisky geek with OCD that I don’t still try to keep track of what stores I used to shop at have in stock.

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  5. Today in #8 and #9:

    David Driscoll writes on Spirits Journal:

    “We should be getting the Glenmorangie 18 year old single malt back into stock today at our old hot hot hot price of $84.99 – CHEAPEST IN THE UNITED STATES! Our LVMH prices are seriously sensational. Lowest Ardbeg Uigeadail and the lowest GlenMo 18 — two top-shelf whiskies that you can drink over, and over, and over again. I never get tired of either one.”

    A quick glance at Wine Searcher reveals that Beverage Depot in Dallas, TX has it for $81.49. And while they’re making a huge meal out of their $52.99 price for the Uigeadail, it should be noted that San Francisco Wine Trading Company had it for just $2 higher all fall without making a fuss (in fact they still do). It doesn’t seem like being the largest independent Ardbeg account in the country gives them quite as much of an edge as they make it out to seem.

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